08/08/2011 06:18 PM

Darth Vader vs. Death Strip

Berlin Wall Sinks into Cold War Disneyland


Politicians in Berlin are searching for a suitable way to commemorate the construction of the Berlin Wall. But the most prominent scenes around the former partition are increasingly being exploited by creative entrepreneurs.

André Prager has sold many things in his life. First he tried his hand at fruit and vegetables, later switching to hawk sweets as a salesman for an Italian chocolate company. Then he discovered the Berlin Wall and its business potential.

Sitting in his sales office, Prager, 39, is beaming from ear to ear. His company's "Trabi Safaris" are a huge hit, with tourists from around the world touring the route of the former Berlin Wall in Trabants, East German-made cars with rattling two-stroke engines. "Discover the last relics of real-life socialism," he promises his customers.

With their unwieldy gearshifts and smelly exhaust fumes, the 120 Trabants in Prager's fleet provoke loud outbursts of laughter from his international guests already at the beginning of the tour. Guides try their best to recreate the odd world behind the Wall. "Safari" guests are subjected to traffic checks by men dressed as officers of the former East German police force. A now they are also forced to exchange their euros for East German marks, which they can spend on such classic Socialist fare such as "Solyanka," a Russian soup, or an Eastern European version of ragoût fin.

But are businesses like this trivializing East German history?

Gazing out from under a baseball cap emblazoned with the image of a skull, the businessman looks surprised when he hears the question. "The Trabi isn't a symbol of oppression," Prager, who was an East German citizen before he became an entrepreneur, says. Instead, it represents "deceleration" and the yearning for a simpler world, he adds. "Anyone who can make money with it should give it a go."

Kitsch and Memorials, Side-by-Side

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, a date the city is commemorating in extremes. Creative entrepreneurs and senior government officials are addressing the Wall and its consequences in very different ways, with kitsch and serious remembrances often featured side-by-side.

On Aug. 13, the president, the chancellor and other top politicians will attend a ceremony at the Berlin Wall memorial on Bernauer Strasse. There will be serious speeches, and once again there will be much talk of how, where and from which perspective the state and German society should commemorate the 136 Berlin residents who died at the Wall, along with German partition in general and the injustices of the East German dictatorship.

Meanwhile business is booming for entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the anniversary. East Germany is being reborn as a tourist attraction. In a number of central locations, its former capital has the feel of a big amusement park, like some tongue-in-cheek Haunted Mansion in which the ghosts of the past entertain the tourist audience -- with the friendly support of people who dress up as Mickey Mouse, Indian chiefs and Darth Vader from the "Star Wars" saga and routinely pose for photographs in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Business is so brisk that politicians and conservators are seriously discussing whether Berlin is turning into a Cold War Disneyland. Some are even calling it a "Venice effect." They worry that a Berlin that succumbs to hordes of tourists could ossify into scenery of the country's East German and Nazi past -- a museum of the 20th century.

The developments are creating a competition in the German capital between business and commemoration of sensitive events, tourist entertainment and a public culture of remembrance. At issue is who gets to tell the story of Germany's division -- and which original locations in the city are used to convey it.

Fragments of History

For years, most Berliners wanted nothing more than to see the Wall disappear. They objected to what they saw as a badge of shame, and they wanted the city to grow together. They were more interested in starting the reconstruction of an imperial palace that was destroyed long ago than in preserving anything more than just a few fragments of a still extant monument to world history.

The Germans, in keeping with their reputation for thoroughness, removed 99 percent of the border facilities. In doing so, they also dismantled a concrete memory of the horrors of German division and discarded what could have been a memorial for future generations.

What remained were remnants for historic preservationists, including half-destroyed concrete sections of the wall that recently underwent a so-called "stress test" to assess their risk of collapse.

Thus the Wall, which the East Germans had officially dubbed an anti-fascist protective barrier, finally became a wall in people's minds, an imaginary place that various players from the federal and state governments now seek to occupy. Some prefer to emphasize the victory of freedom and the market economy, while others would rather draw attention to the policy of détente and the East German civil rights movement.

These differing visions have led to years of intensive debate over suitable forms of commemoration. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs and private citizens have already co-opted the most prominent sites of German partition, imposing their own concept and business ideas.

'Costumed Border Guards Are a Slap in the Face to Victims'

Checkpoint Charlie is a case in point. In 1961, Soviet and American tanks faced off at the Allied border crossing on Friedrichstrasse. Today, entertainers dressed as Allied soldiers smile and pose for photos at the site.

A private Berlin Wall museum has also established itself as a tourist magnet for the city, second only in popularity to the famed Pergamon Museum of archeological artifacts including Babylon's Ishtar Gate. Some 865,000 visitors a year visit the museum to marvel at its dusty permanent exhibit of old spring guns and displays depicting the most ludicrous of escape attempts.

But the Berlin city-state government, the Senate, which is controlled by a coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Left Party, also wants to make its presence felt at Checkpoint Charlie. A public museum has been planned at the site since 2006. "We have an educational mission," says André Schmitz, Berlin's secretary of culture. "Berlin has been sleeping for too long, allowing the Berlin Wall museum to monopolize the narrative at this site."

City officials envision a Cold War Center, which would bring together the memorial and museums in Berlin that focus on various aspects of German division and provide an overarching view of history, or what historians refer to as a "master narrative."

Rainer Klemke, the man in charge of monuments and memorials in Schmitz's culture administration, has campaigned for the establishment of a Cold War Center for years. "We have a plan, we have a feasibility study and we have an investor who is providing us with space in a new building directly at Checkpoint Charlie." Klemke wants the permanent exhibit to have "multiple perspectives," thereby avoiding triumphant Western gestures.

SPD politician Markus Meckel, East Germany's last foreign minister, also supports a new museum at Checkpoint Charlie, because he feels that the Wall's international role in the history of the 20th century in Berlin is not being appropriately displayed.

Had Ronald Reagan outspent the Eastern Block in the arms race to the point that, broke from trying to keep up, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had no choice but to comply with the words the US president said before the Brandenburg Gate, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"? Or had West German politician Egon Bahr's policy of détente already paved the way to reunification? Or did East German civil rights activists bring about the end?

Finally, what role did the Wall play for other Europeans, and for Russians, Chinese, Americans and their children, who are now flocking to Berlin to spend their vacations there?

An Ongoing Dispute over Berlin's Monuments

"Sometimes we have an overly provincial perspective in Berlin," says Meckel, explaining that the various perspectives will be seriously addressed in the Berlin Wall center. "The international visitors should be able to identify with the place. It cannot provide a purely black-and-white portrayal."

World leaders, like former Czech President Vaclav Havel, former US Secretary of State James Baker and former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, have signed a petition calling for the establishment of the new museum. The only problem is that Meckel is making no headway with the German government. "Why this official disinterest?" he asks. Minister of State for Culture Bernd Neumann, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has listened to his cause, says Meckel, but there has been no reaction to date. Neumann is currently on vacation and his office has declined to comment.

But this much has become clear in recent months: The ongoing dispute over Berlin's many monuments hasn't exactly aroused the enthusiastic interest of Chancellor Angela Merkel's top culture official.

There are many traps to be avoided. "I find it extremely disconcerting to see the plans for the center being promoted," says Hubertus Knabe, the controversial director of the memorial at the former Hohenschönhausen prison, run by the feared East German police, the Stasi. "After all, the Wall wasn't built by the Cold War but by the East German Communist Party."

Knabe wants the victims of the East German dictatorship to be afforded more respect, even on the street. "Costumed border guards in downtown Berlin are a slap in the face for the victims," he says. "Germany should apply the same laws as other former Soviet bloc countries and impose strict legal limits on the use of Socialist symbols."

If that happened, students and panhandlers could no longer earn money dressing up as Stasi officers, soldiers in the East German army or East German police officers, just as German law forbids the wearing of Nazi uniforms and symbols. Costumed border guards who stamp tourist passports at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz square with the words "Original East German visa" would have to move on.

Berlin Has Become Europe's Third-Most Popular Tourist Destination

There has probably never been as much interest in contemporary history in Berlin as there seems to be at the moment, and many visitors are willing to wait in line for such attractions. In 1996, the city's monuments and contemporary history museums saw only 600,000 visitors. That number has since shot up to 5.5 million a year.

Based on the number of overnight stays, Berlin even surpassed Rome last year and is now Europe's third-most popular tourist destination. "Berliners haven't quite caught on to the fact that they are now playing in the same league with London and Paris," says Burkhard Kieker, the city's tourism director. The visitors are especially interested in the partition of Germany. Many would prefer to see the Wall in its undamaged original state, complete with all the structural details of the horrors associated with it. Kieker is well aware of how politically explosive a rebuilt section of the Wall would be. Nevertheless, he says, "that sort of thing would be a tremendous attraction."

Stasi prison director Knabe even feels that this is long overdue. "The border facilities, in their full monstrosity, should at least be rebuilt in one spot."

Should Wall Remnants Be UNESCO World Heritage?

Technically, it wouldn't be much of a problem to rebuild the Wall. Some of its old elements are still in use today, as walls in a city recycling facility, while others can be found in a Berlin cement factory and in former East German agricultural cooperatives. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before entrepreneurs take a stab at reconstruction.

This would probably not be much of a surprise to conservative CDU member Monika Grütters, who chairs the culture affairs committee in the German parliament, the Bundestag. She also heads the Brandenburg Gate Foundation, which is supported by the state-owned bank Landesbank Berlin and has its offices in a building on the right side of the gate, where the artist Max Liebermann once lived.

Grütters is horrified whenever she steps outside and sees loud young people and bellowing men riding by on so-called beer bikes. On some days there are pickle-eating contests, and on others there are events like the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. The city issues permits for about 80 events a year on Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

"Pariser Platz is deteriorating into the nation's fairground," says Grütters, noting that everyone is now allowed to hang a logo on the Brandenburg Gate. "The Berlin Senate has turned it into carnival grounds."

UNESCO Conditions Met, Study Says

There is one place, however, where commemoration and commerce are still kept largely separate. Only two kilometers from the Brandenburg Gate, Axel Klausmeier manages the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. It is the best-preserved section of the old border facilities. The Wall itself, a signal fence, a secondary wall and a watchtower are still preserved in relatively good condition.

The program there is the antithesis of Disneyfication. It shows the wall with all of the wounds of time, including those inflicted by so-called Mauerspechte (wall peckers). "It is precisely in this compromised condition that it becomes a historic monument," says Klausmeier, the director of the memorial.

Sometimes, when a Trabi Safari stops at Bernauer Strasse, Klausmeier explains to the baffled participants that they are driving on the wrong side of the Wall. "You are in the French sector here," he informs them. When youths wearing East German uniforms recently entered the former death strip, he threw them out. "This is a memorial for the victims," he told them.

Klausmeier has walked the former inner and outer boundaries of West Berlin several times. In the process, he has catalogued 1,800 relics of the old border, many of them now almost unrecognizable as such.

And now he wants the remains of the Wall to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All the conditions have been met, a study has just confirmed. But Berlin's leaders are reluctant to submit an application. "It's probably too much of a political issue," says Klausmeier.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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